Cowboys & Aliens ✮1/2
Of Spaceships and Apple Dumplings …
by Glenn Lovell
Fusing disparate genres is always a tricky business. When it’s done reasonably well, it can produce a fun fantasy-western hybrid on the order of “The Valley of Gwangi” or “Back to the Future III.” When it’s done poorly, look out! You get something like Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Wild Wild West” or, worse, “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.”
The problem with this mix-and-match approach is that it usually winds up pissing off fans of both genres, who wouldn’t under normal circumstances share an armrest, much less a beer at the local saloon.
It was pretty obvious from the trailers for Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens” that we were in for a bumpy ride. The Ron Howard-Steven Spielberg production, loosely adapted from a graphic novel, stars the typically stoic Daniel Craig as a ray gun tottin’ outlaw and the typically crusty Harrison Ford as Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, a pushy rancher-paterfamilias with sniveling, troublemaker son. The only question was: How bumpy a ride would it be?
Answer: It’s not as bad as “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” ‒ nothing could be ‒ but it’s still in the neither/nor realm of the big screen “Wild Wild West.” In other words, it’s a desperate-to-please amalgam that combines the hoariest clichés of both the western and science fiction thriller. Among the scores of films plundered are “Rio Bravo,” “Shane,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Big Country,” “Valley of Gwangi,” “King Kong,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “War of the Worlds.”
Oh, yes, and there are storefront Indians, too. Tossed into the already cluttered mix, they get to whoop and holler a lot and eventually sacrifice themselves to the white man’s cause. They’re the real aliens of the title.
As I said, a patch-quilt affair. (A joke might be appropriate here: How many screenwriters does it take to screw in a light bulb? I don’t know, but it takes five to adapt a comic book called “Cowboys and Aliens.”)
The best thing about this expensive pastiche: It doesn’t stint on the CG invaders; they’re a pretty formidable lot and, for a change, are viewed in the full glare of the sun.
We open with a slow pan of prairie and the hollow twang of spaghetti Western guitars. A lone hombre (Daniel) left for dead sticks his head into the frame. He has no name or memory, only a gash in his side and, on his left wrist, some newfangled bracelet. He also has a way with his fists and six-shooter, which he ably displays in early face-offs with scalp-hunters and the colonel’s sniveling, no-account son (a wasted Paul Dano of “There Will be Blood”). All this head-bashing brings him to the attention of the mining town’s sheriff (Keith Carradine, also wasted) and the omnipresent Ella (Olivia Wilde), whose schoolmarm attire is offset by low-slung holster and Stetson. Sheriff and Ella know the stranger as Jake Lonergan, a fearsome desperado wanted for robbery and murder.
Before they can take him to trial, alien gunships swoop down and incinerate half the town. Why are they here? And why are they plucking people off the street with high-tech lassos? “The machines took our kin,” sobs one of the stock players, which include a philosophical preacher (Clancy Brown) and a cowardly saloon owner (Sam Rockwell) who, of course, will win his spurs on the trail.
The resultant rescue mission ‒ which has Jake and Dolarhyde heading a posse that includes Cherokee warriors and Jake’s old gang members ‒ is about what you’d expect, and less. There are moments of selfless sacrifice, moments of nauseating sentimentality, and an alien encounter in an upside-down riverboat that will remind you of the abandoned-house encounter both versions of “War of the Worlds.” The action sequences range from “They went that-a-way” humdrum to, when wooden spears prove the equal of alien blasters, downright idiotic. De rigueur in these days of superhero high-jinks, Jake even hops one of the dragonfly-shaped warships. “Hang on!” he instructs Ella as he blasts the thing from the sky. Will a nearby lake break their fall? You’ve obviously scanned the script.
You have to feel sorry for actors dry-gulched into delivering lines like “Boys, grab your guns ‒ we’re riding out!” and, during a lull in the big battle, a tearful “I always dreamed of having a son like you.” Favreau and company certainly aimed low in search of inspiration; their characters and dialogue are straight out of those “Apple Dumpling Gang” comedies with Don Knotts and Tim Conway. Because he hasn’t much to say and strides through the action like something carved from granite, Craig survives with reputation intact. Ford, however, attempts to parody his long line of humorless heroes by flashing his signature pained smile. It served him in the Indy Jones movies, but this time it comes off as, well, just plain painful.
Talk about a movie leaving a foul taste. The midair explosion of the aliens’ escaping rocket appears to have been copied, verbatim, from launch-pad footage of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
COWBOYS & ALIENS ✮1/2 With Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell. Directed by Jon Favreau; scripted by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtuzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby. 118 min. PG-13 (for fairly graphic deaths by gunplay, both human and alien)